The Columnist and the Dog: a tale of two ascetics

Figs in Winter
6 min readJun 5, 2024

Symeon the Stylite has been compared to Diogenes of Sinope. Yet the two provide very different lessons on the nature of virtue.

Left: Symeon the Stylite, 1901 illustration by W. E. F. Britten; Right: Alexander the Great visits Diogenes at Corinth, by W. Matthews, 1914. Images from Wikimedia.

On 27 February 380 CE Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. This was the doing of the Emperor Theodosius I, who decreed Nicene Christianity to be the only acceptable belief. Anyone following alternative versions of the religion was thereby labeled a heretic and a “foolish madman,” and authorities where given free reign to punish heresy in whatever guise it may manifest itself.

Despite concerted attempts to distance itself from paganism, the new religion on the block owed a lot to the philosophical schools of Greece and Rome that preceded it, especially Platonism, Stoicism, and Cynicism, and later on Aristotelianism.

Wait, did I say Cynicism? What could there possibly be in common between Cynics like Diogenes of Sinope, who ate, had sex, and defecated in the streets, and where therefore nicknamed “dog-like,” and the pious and proper Christians? A lot, as it turned out. At least when it came to one particular practice that Cynicism shared with Christianity: asceticism.

In his book, How to Say No, translator Mark D. Usher has collected a number of…

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Figs in Winter

by Massimo Pigliucci. New Stoicism and Beyond. Entirely AI free.